aAP Photo/Jan Straley, via Daily Sitka Sentinel A fin whale swims in Sitka Sound on Sept. 16 in Sitka. Fin whales have not been seen in the area since the 1940s as commercial whaling decimated the population. They are now a protected species.
AP Photo/Jan Straley, via Daily
SITKA (AP) The sighting of a large baleen whale in Sitka Sound may be the first fin whale in the area since commercial whaling in Alaska inside waters was halted more than 60 years ago, a marine biologist said.
''It's significant, because it means they're recovering after commercial whaling,'' said biologist Jan Straley, who went out in a small boat last week to inspect the whale.
She darted the whale to obtain a DNA sample.
She said she is nearly certain that it is a fin whale because of its size and because of the white coloring on its lower jaw. A laboratory in California will run tests on the DNA sample to confirm the species. The tests also will show whether it is a male or female and provide clues to its association with other fin whales in the North Pacific, she said.
Fin whales are the second-largest species after blue whales and often grow to more than 70 feet long. The whale in Sitka Sound is about 50 to 60 feet long, Straley said.
Steve Ramp, captain of the Allen Marine wildlife tour boat St. Anastasia, first saw the whale in the middle of Sitka Sound last Monday and got in touch with Straley.
''At first I thought it was minke whale, and then I instantly realized it was way too big,'' said Ramp, who has since seen the whale near Cape Burunof and twice in Eastern Channel offshore from Whale Park.
Straley has seen the whale a few times. Sometimes a humpback whale has been in the area, apparently oblivious to the much larger fin whale, Straley said.
Occasionally, people have contacted her to say they have seen fin whales in Southeast Alaska, but none has been confirmed.
''Southeast is sort of the middle of a sandwich with nothing in it,'' said Straley, explaining that fin whales are often seen in Dixon Entrance and in the northern Gulf of Alaska but not in Southeast.
''It's not unusual to see fin whales in Alaska, but they have not returned to Fredrick Sound and Stevens Passage where they were historically.''
Fin whales can travel at rates of more than 20 mph and are sometimes called the ''greyhounds of the sea.''
According to the American Cetacean Society's Web site, more than 30,000 fin whales were killed annually between 1935 and 1965. The International Whaling Commission placed them under full protection in 1966. There are an estimated 40,000 fin whales in the Northern Hemisphere.
The whales are generally gray or brownish-black on the back with white undersides. They usually spend their winters in subtropical areas and migrate toward the poles in the summer, the ACS Web site said.
Straley said the fin whale is a challenge to study because it moves faster than a humpback and its behavior is harder for her to predict, but she said she would like to study the whale if it stays around Sitka.
''It's a novelty. It'd be really fun to study,'' she said.
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